One of the Scripture readings for this coming Sunday (5th Sunday of Lent) is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1:45). After Lazarus died, many people came to Martha and Mary to console them in their grief (v.19). People in mourning typically did not leave their homes during the first seven days after a death except to go to the grave of the loved one to grieve their death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, however, she went to meet him. When she met Jesus, she said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v.21). She then sent word to her sister Mary that Jesus was calling for her. So Mary got up quickly and went to where Jesus was. The people mourning with her in the house thought she was going to the tomb to weep, but instead she went to meet Jesus, saying the same words that Martha had said earlier—“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v.32).
Before it becomes a story of resurrection, this is a poignant story of grief. Lazarus’ sisters are weeping; indeed, the whole village is grieving with them (vv.19, 31). Grief is a discombobulating experience; it throws people off—changes routines, sensitizes them to loss, makes it difficult to plan, consider options, think ahead, etc., etc.
There are many different emotions people are experiencing during the current coronavirus pandemic— anxiety, dread, worry, anger, etc. But perhaps one we haven’t thought a lot about is grief. This pandemic has drastically altered our routines; the loss of normalcy is almost paralyzing...we try to go about daily routines, but nothing is routine or normal anymore. Social distancing makes it hard to maintain the connections with people we’ve almost come to take for granted, and virtual connections become primary instead of in-person connections. The loss of connections, however, is a serious grief. We also grieve the economic impact of this crisis—some people are losing their jobs, losing their retirement, or are forced to take jobs they didn’t sign up for. Another grief is the loss of control over our lives; something else is ordering much of our daily routines. Another loss is our sense of safety...when will we be safe from this illness?
Even though we know this is all probably temporary, it doesn’t feel that way. We sense deeply that the world has changed, just as going to the airport is very different now from how it used to be before 9/11. The emotional impact of COVID-19 is hitting us hard, and we are not used to the kind of collective grief that’s all around us. The grief throws us off, emotionally. Like Martha and Mary, we may cry, “Lord, if you had been here, our brothers and sisters around the world and here at home wouldn’t be dying.” But they are. And we struggle to navigate this fast-changing environment.
Just as it was normal for Martha and Mary to feel deep grief when their brother Lazarus died, it’s normal for all of us to feel grief—both personally and collectively—from all the losses and changes that have come upon us so suddenly from the effects of COVID-19. And we need to allow ourselves to mourn. We need to hold each other’s grief, as the villagers held Martha and Mary’s grief. Even Jesus held their grief—they took Jesus’ to Lazarus’ tomb, and the first thing Jesus did was weep (v.35). He didn’t say, “Don’t worry; be happy!” or some other irrelevant thing. He felt the discomfort of their grief; he entered their grief with them. And then he raised Lazarus from the dead! The story has a glorious ending, to be sure. But let’s pay attention to the reality of grief that many people are suffering from during the current pandemic. Let’s also hold each other’s grief, and wait for the Lord of life to unbind us from our fears and grief, and live again.
Phil Kanagy, Pastor